Russian foreign policy is often portrayed by Western foreign policy analysts as aggressive and unpredictable. This criticism usually carries with it the implication that Russia continues to be a threat to Western interests and that its long-term goal is to re-establish the power and prestige of the former Soviet Union. President Putin's public statements, in particular his assertion that "the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century", have reinforced this view. However, such an approach ignores the many existential problems confronting Russia as well as its legitimate security interests. Therefore, rather than define Russia's foreign policy in terms of the potential threat it poses to Western countries, this article shows Russia's foreign policy to be a reflection of the internal weaknesses within the country and to be a response to the security challenges it faces.
One of the major problems confronting Russia is the overreliance of its economy on oil and natural gas exports, In this regard, most of Russia's requirements for food, finished goods and services have to be imported. This structural weakness is compounded by the business and social climate in the country, where because of widespread corruption private firms are obliged to pay protection money to state officials or criminal gangs in order to stay in business - a practise, which effectively stifles activity in all sectors of the economy. Linked to the problem of corruption is Russia's poor human rights record. Western countries have responded to both issues by imposing sanctions against Russian high-ranking officials for their alleged involvement in corruption and human-rights abuses, but the attention given to this problem in the West has tended to overlook the fact that corruption is a deep-rooted social phenomenon in Russian society dating back many centuries.
Politically, the Russian Federation remains a fragile entity. Allegations of widespread fraud in last year's Duma's elections and the inability of the authorities to deal with the problem of systemic corruption have undermined the legitimacy of the country's ruling elite. Moreover, there remains an ever-present danger that one or more of Russia's constituent republics may, at some stage, vie for independence. President Putin's constant reference to Russia as a unitary state and the name of the country's largest political party, "United Russia", tacitly acknowledges this possibility.
Against this background, Russian foreign policy can be seen as trying to address some of the problems, described here. Russia's intervention in the Caucasus, in particular its wars against Chechnya and Georgia, have been aimed at securing control over a region which is rich in the natural energy resources that generate most of Russia's foreign currency earnings. A further aim has been to discourage its rebellious republics in the southern part of the country from breaking away. Similarly, Russia's support for Iran and Syria, which lie near to the Caucasus, has been aimed at strengthening its position in the region. These are strategies that the West might find fault with, but they prioritize Russia's national interests.
In Europe, Russia's vehement opposition to the deployment of the Missile Defense Shield - which has been accompanied by threats against its neighbours in Eastern Europe - is a source of further friction with the West. However, Russia's objections should be seen primarily as an attempt to retain a limited form of influence over its former satellites in Eastern Europe and to demonstrate that it still represents a serious military power, despite the fall of the Soviet Union.
Although Russia's actions have generated considerable concern in Western countries, there are still reasons for believing that Russia is interested in maintaining good relations with the US and Europe. Russia continues to support NATO's presence in Afghanistan and recently concluded a new arms limitation treaty with the US. Moreover, Western Europe remains the most important market for Russia's energy exports, and Russia has persisted in its efforts to lift visa restrictions with the EU. In broader terms, Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization signifies its determination to integrate itself into the world economy while Russian corporations continue to invest in Western countries.
In conclusion, any assessment of Russian foreign policy must take into account the internal pressures within the country as well as what Russia perceives to be its own security needs. In this respect, it is wrong to assume that Russia's actions are automatically directed against the West when its policy clashes with Western interests. Nor is it sufficient to resort to clichés such as the ‘Russian Bear' or to point to Putin's past career in the KGB, when frictions arise between Russia and the West. A deeper understanding of Russia's foreign policy goals, as outlined in this article, is needed for the West to be able to better manage its relationship with a country that is still emerging from over 70 years of totalitarian rule.
John Taylor recently completed an M.A in War Studies at Kings College London and is currently pursuing a career in International Relations.